How Stoicism helped Marcus Aurelius become the greatest leader
We all know the saying about “power going to his head”. When someone gains some semblance of power, no matter how small, it becomes open to abuse – a foreman in a factory, a middle management appointment.
The newly promoted foreman or manager feels insecure or begins to believe he is better than his subordinates and treats them so. He can make life difficult for everyone around him.
Or on a more substantial scale, the phrase ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ springs to mind.
We need only go back to the 20th century and see this in action with Hitler, Mao, and Stalin. Their power was significantly greater and more devastating. 100s of millions of innocent people died at the hands of these men. This is absolute power corrupting absolutely.
There was however one man who had more power than anyone in his day. Yet he did not fall into the trap of arrogance or corruption like many before and after him. Rather than corrupt him, it made him better.
Marcus Aurelius came to power in 161 AD in Rome. He donned the purple robes and became the emperor of Rome and all its vast territories. Many of us may recall the cruelty of previous emperors like Nero and Caligula – known for setting lions and tigers on their people in the name of fun.
Marcus was cut from a different cloth. Besides being a great leader, he was great philosopher. In fact, he applied a particular branch of philosophy called stoicism to guide him through the ups and downs of his life, so that even 2000 years later we speak of him with awe.
Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy. Like all philosophies, Stoicism attempts to give people a framework for a better life. Its main message is about freeing ourselves from attributing negative emotions to life events, helping us to respond stronger, both mentally and physically when we are confronted by challenges.
If we are driving to a meeting and our car breaks down for no apparent reason. We know we will be late, so our first reaction might be to call our client to explain. But alas our phone has no signal. this might trigger several emotions, Anger!! Why me?!!! Fear!! we might lose a client!! ’ Exasperation and anxiety. We have all felt these things!
Through the practice of Stoicism, we try to detach ourselves from these stress inducing emotions. We know there is no point getting upset, angry or fearful over a situation that we have no control over. All we can do at this moment is act stoically We can try to stay calm and present and even happy. Maybe we can use the whole event to your advantage. Perhaps learn what went wrong with the car and resolve not to be caught out again or maybe use humour to make it a funny anecdote. Maybe this anecdote will even help you build a stronger bond with your client.
Stoicism at its core, is a philosophy of perception. People who practice it know that their experiences do not have to control their emotions. A great Stoic may not be immune to misfortune, but he will not be overwhelmed by it.
Like the serenity prayer says,
‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.’
After every AA meeting alcoholics stand in a circle and recite this. This encapsulates the Stoic philosophy.
Stoics also practice virtue. The four key elements of virtue are: Courage, humility, fairness and self-discipline.
Now as Marcus Aurelius was ruler of the empire of Rome, he had many problems that needed to be overcome. He could not allow his emotions to control his actions. He realised by using Stoicism as a framework to support his leadership, he had the ammunition to overcome his problems without feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, fear, envy, or shame. He knew that by acting virtuously and by not trying to control the uncontrollable he would navigate the role of Emperor to the best of his ability.
Marcus tried to practice stoicism throughout his life. When he was a young boy of 8, his mother found him sleeping on a hard wooden floor without any sheets or pillows. When asked why he did this, he responded – “because it makes me stronger mother”. He was putting himself through hardship voluntarily to become a stronger human.
We can see this today with the rise of Tough Mudders, marathons, ultra-marathons and Spartan races. People are voluntarily putting themselves through hardship to become mentally and physically tougher. Perhaps society today has become too comfy. We need challenges to make us stronger, to be more stoic.
With the title “Roman Emperor,” you might think life would have been easy for Marcus Aurelius, but not so.
Aurelius lost 8 children before his death. Clearly, he suffered grief, but he did not allow emotion to consume him. As a Stoic he bore these tragedies with fortitude - fuel to make him stronger and more compassionate.
The Antonine Plague where 5 million Romans perished was the worst plague in 900 years took place in Marcus Aurelius’ term as emperor. His Stoic mind focused-on virtue and doing the best with what could be controlled - NOT what could not be controlled. He knew the plague had to run its course. There was no stopping it. Marcus had the humility to trust others, to quickly surround himself with the best doctors of his time.
During his reign as Emperor, the empire’s money began to run out during the plague. Marcus bravely taxed the rich because he felt they could afford it, but he also sold his own property, and the jewelled dresses of his wife, in the spirit of fairness. Marcus lived in authentic pursuit of his values. He also stayed in Rome with his people when many were fleeing. Virtue above all else.
That little boy who slept on the hard floor voluntarily, forged the great leader and Stoic that was to become Marcus, the leader of the Roman Empire.
.Surely if Marcus Aurelius could divine a life supported by a stoic framework we too can take this philosophy of constantly practicing virtue without letting emotions get in the way- leading to a calmer happier life.
Rarely, if ever, has there been a man with such a combination of power and humility. Marcus Aurelius - the philosopher king!
Power did not corrupt Marcus and it will not corrupt us if we practice Stoicism. Do not let things we cannot control, control us. By acting virtuously in our daily activities, we will have a better chance of a serene and fulfilling life.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus Aurelius
Written by Dara Duffy